Judge Michael Rankins skips the hand-holding and goes straight for the hug.
Drama that will open your eyes and awaken your heart.
It's like Bridget Loves Bernie, only 20 years younger, and with the religions reversed.
Facts of the Case
"I've killed Rachel!" cries seven-year-old Michael O'Malley (Philip Needs) to his kindly parish priest, Father Timothy (John Gregson). The "victim" in question is Rachel Mathias (Loretta Parry), little Michael's bosom companion in this bucolic English countryside hamlet, circa 1960.
The boy and girl share much in common: an affection for Michael's pet mouse Hector; a love for adventure; a secret wish to meet the Queen. What Rachel and Michael don't share is their ethnic backgrounds. Rachel's family is Jewish; Michael's, Irish Catholic—which places both children just outside the societal mainstream in rural England.
Can childhood friendship overcome religious and cultural prejudice? Did Michael really kill Rachel? Come on…just look at those smiles on the DVD case.
It's tempting to spout the cliché that Hand In Hand is the kind of film that no one makes any more. The truth, though, is even starker—it's the kind of film that couldn't be made today, at least not by the people who are currently making films. It's too sweet and innocent—not in a cloying, saccharine way, but with an earnest gentility that's specific to its time and place. Today, the filmmakers would feel compelled to depict the lead characters as miniature adults, because that's how we think of children in the 21st century—not as unique beings with their own sensibility, framed by lack of life experience and blissful ignorance of the world's harsh realities.
Hand In Hand sees no need to burden its protagonists with a prematurely worldly perspective. For this reason, Michael and Rachel sound and behave more like real children than any kids you'll see on screen today. They have honest conversations about the kinds of things seven-year-olds would actually talk about—like imaginary sisters, and why girls can't go to Africa, and whether dead pet mice should be buried according to Catholic ritual or Jewish.
The beautifully realized language of children and their well-observed natural guilelessness are two of the joys of Hand In Hand. When Michael tells his mother that he doesn't want to visit the neighbor lady's house because "she smells of cheese," or when one of his classmates tells Michael that his "dad doesn't like Jews…because they killed Christ," they're the kind of things that kids say, because maturity and peer pressure haven't yet connected the filter between their minds and their mouths.
And yet, the façade of pleasantness that adults so readily adopt is one of the cold facts of which Hand In Hand subtly reminds us. Casual comments demonstrate that bigotry can be so ingrained as to sound innocuous. Take, for example, this exchange between Michael's parents, when Rachel comes over to watch television.
Mr. O'Malley: "She's a nice little girl, isn't she?"
The rational person can't help but gasp out a "What the…?" upon hearing that. But it's clear from her offhanded tone and cheerful expression that Michael's mother isn't intending to be mean. Her thought process just doesn't permit her to imagine that Jewish people might actually be nice—just like any other people. In the same way, when Mrs. O'Malley warns Michael never to go to the synagogue with Rachel—"you're a Catholic, and it would be a sin…a very bad sin"—she isn't consciously trying to instill hatred in her son. It's just that, well, she'd never darken the threshold of a Jewish house of worship herself, so neither should Michael. That's simply how the world is.
For his part, young Michael is already beginning to feel the sting of prejudice first-hand. The same jug-eared boy who informs Michael that "the Jews killed Christ" follows up with a more personal barb: "Funny you not knowing that. Suppose it's because you're a Catholic. My dad doesn't like Catholics either."
Hand In Hand is, without question, a "message" film. As such, it's preachy and morally simplistic at times. Still, the message is worthwhile, and considering that this film was made half a century ago, the concept of learning to embrace our differences doesn't seem all that antique. Director Philip Leacock—who would go on to a lengthy career in American television, helming dozens of episodes of everything from Gunsmoke to Falcon Crest—manages not to overwring the emotional hanky throughout the movie, letting the screenplay (by Diana Morgan, from a story by Sidney Harmon) sound the key notes gently and effortlessly, buoyed by the performances of his two delightful child stars.
And what charming performances! Rarely do we see juvenile actors in movies who don't seem to be putting on a show, but instead appear like average kids—albeit kids with spotless clothes and perfect diction. (Then again, this isn't To Sir, With Love.) I expected to look up Loretta Parry and Philip Needs on IMDb and discover resumes overflowing with credits. In fact, outside of a handful of small TV roles, neither child did much acting beyond Hand In Hand, and both were out of show business entirely within five years of its release. Perhaps that's just as well. Both young actors come across so fresh and unaffected that we'd hate to have to watch them grow up on camera.
The year after its release, Hand In Hand won the Golden Globe Award for Best Film Promoting International Understanding. That the Golden Globes ever had such a category speaks volumes about the seismic changes in the world between the early 1960s and today.
Sony Pictures' inspirational niche label, Affirm Films, delivers this classic gem with a beautifully restored transfer, far superior to what one might expect for a 50-year-old catalog title. The black-and-white image looks terrific, given the age and relative obscurity of the subject matter. The Dolby Mono soundtrack likewise is surprisingly crisp and clear, with good fidelity for a track of this type.
Sadly, no extras are included; however, the Affirm Films website offers a detailed, Bible-based online study guide to Hand In Hand, apparently intended for use in Sunday school classes. Viewers interested in more information about this movie and its themes (and who don't mind wading through a bit of Scripture) may find this PDF-formatted document a valuable resource. Simply click the link in the "Accomplices" section in the right-hand column.
Remade today, set in New York City, and with the girl being, say, Islamic instead of Jewish, Hand In Hand might enlighten a whole new generation about the need for ethnic and religious tolerance. Then again, if remade today, they'd cast a couple of smart-aleck brats and fill their mouths with profanity and potty humor. Let's just stick with the original.
A pleasure, and with certainty, not a guilty one. Before court is adjourned, could we all please join hands, and promise to get along?
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